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Saturday, June 07, 2008


Shavua tov - a good week to everyone.

Unthinkable? Maybe not.
THOUGH THE question of what president Obama might do is compelling, a more urgent question, in the months before the current administration gives way to its successor, is the degree to which President George W. Bush considers Israeli and American security would be safe in Obama's hands. By extension, this raises the issue of whether Bush will feel obligated to act in these last months against Iran.

The notion of the outgoing administration employing military force against Teheran as its final, devastating act is, of course, unthinkable.

It would shatter the norm under which an administration that is winding down moves into a holding pattern so as not to saddle its successor with the repercussions of dramatic, eleventh-hour activities.

Furthermore, last year's National Intelligence Estimate, however poorly drafted and however subsequently "recalibrated" by National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell, essentially deprived Bush of any legitimacy for action by so downplaying the nature of the Iranian threat.

And American public support, desperate for resolution in Iraq, is utterly resistant to the idea of the curtain going up on yet another theater of war.

Thus the conventional wisdom, in both Washington and Jerusalem, is that the problem of the ayatollahs and the atom will be left for the attentions of president McCain or president Obama.

And yet the unthinkable is being thought.

Conventional wisdom notwithstanding, the fact is that shortly before Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met with Bush on Wednesday, "sources close to the prime minister" were being quoted as saying that Olmert would urge the president to prepare to attack Iran in the next few months if concerted international pressure fails to deter the ayatollahs.

In his address to AIPAC on Tuesday, Olmert spoke dramatically of the imperative to stop Iran "by all possible means" and said the US and Israel were "working closely in a concerted, coordinated effort to prevent Iran from becoming nuclear."

And briefing Israeli reporters after his White House talks, Olmert said he now had far fewer questions regarding the determination of the administration to confront the Iranian threat, the time-frame for such action, and the ways and means by which it would be pursued.

Even as Olmert was heading home from Washington, intelligence chief McConnell was holding talks in Israel - and being told by everyone from Defense Minister Ehud Barak on down not only that Israel regards the NIE as having been downright wrong in asserting that Iran froze its nuclear weapons program in 2003, but also why. Israel, in other words, is making plain to its American allies just how acute and urgent is the need for action, and also providing the hard evidence to underline that assessment.

As Olmert also told AIPAC, "Israel will not tolerate the possibility of a nuclear Iran." And military chiefs have made plain in recent months that Israel is capable of doing "whatever is necessary" to protect itself, and preparing for "every eventuality."

But while Israel may have a military option for Iran, it is a highly complex one. Iran's nuclear sites are numerous, well-defended and a very long way away.

For the United States, given its military bases in the region, the task would be far more straightforward.

Israel would expect to feel the consequences - in the shape of conventional or even chemical missile attack by Iran. Our missile defenses would be at least partially effective, but there could still be dozens or even hundreds of fatalities. Yet the firm consensus here is that paying a grave price today is preferable to a terrible price should Teheran get the bomb and, directly or via a third party, use it toward its declared aim of eliminating Israel.

IN THE final months of his presidency, it may be that Bush confines himself to ensuring that he gives Israel the best chance of successfully neutralizing the Iranian threat should it need to act once he has left the White House. This would involve, for instance, guaranteeing that Israel is able to purchase F-22 stealth bombers - the world's most advanced fighter jet and a vital asset in the face of Iran's advanced radar and other defense systems.

Or it may be that Bush, who constantly stresses the moral imperatives that have guided his presidency and his own indifference to outside criticisms of the paths he has followed and the actions he has taken, is prepared to defy conventional wisdom about lame-duck presidents sitting with their arms folded in their final months. He has always had his own misgivings about the NIE, and will have noted that the International Atomic Energy Agency is now expressing profound concern about the military aspects of Iran's purportedly peaceful nuclear program.

Media outlets as diverse as Time magazine, the Asia Times and Israel's Army Radio have all carried reports in the last couple of weeks related to a supposed readiness on the part of the Bush administration to launch military action against Iran's nuclear sites in the coming months.

Late last month, when The Jerusalem Post's Web site picked up the Army Radio report, which claimed a senior official in Bush's entourage on the recent Israel visit had told his Israeli counterparts about the president's intention to hit Iran, the White House issued a furious denial that amateurishly misidentified the source of the article as the "Army Times," prompting other reporters in Washington to wonder whether the administration doth protest too much.

Coming back full circle to Obama, there is some speculation in Israeli circles that the key consideration for Bush will be the identity of his successor - that he would be much more sanguine turning over the Iran file, unresolved, to president McCain rather than to president Obama. The president has himself been known to express vague concerns regarding the way subsequent US governments might deal with the Middle East.

But such an assessment would suggest only the briefest window of opportunity for American military action - in the two months between the presidential elections in November and a new administration taking office in January. The idea of the departing Bush administration taking aim at Iran at that late hour - that surely is unthinkable? Isn't it?
I don't think it's unthinkable at all.


At 7:13 AM, Blogger NormanF said...

The unthinkable is allowing Iran to pay no price for its radicalism towards Israel and America. The mullahs are looking for a fight. Better it be now than later.

At 11:45 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

OTOH if Bush takes military action against Iran, how will that impact the election? Will Obama pick up independents who are afraid of more military "adventures"?

At 10:33 PM, Blogger Carl in Jerusalem said...


I think Bush will wait until after the election and then act if Obama wins and not act if McCain wins. That's what the article implies as well (I'm sorry - I thought that was clear from the article).


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